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Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol the streets in High River, Alberta, June 29, 2013. The RCMP came under fire this week for searching people's homes and confiscating their firearms.

TODD KOROL/Reuters

Royal Canadian Mounted Police have started returning firearms that officers seized from deserted homes in flood-ravaged High River, Alta., a move that had angered many evacuated residents and even sparked criticism from the Prime Minister's Office.

To get weapons back, owners must have photo identification and a possession acquisition licence, which permits people to have guns and buy ammunition, the RCMP said on Wednesday. If owners cannot produce the document, police can check the Canadian Police Information Centre computer to confirm that they have one. If an owner has the licence, police can also give weapons to a friend or relative to store.

The southern Alberta town of 13,000 was the hardest hit in the flood that began hitting the province two weeks ago. Much of the town was engulfed when the Highwood River rose well above its banks, triggering a mass evacuation. Residents began to return on Saturday.

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The Mounties said officers took "a few hundred" guns from homes where fleeing owners had removed them from basements and left them out to prevent damage as water spread throughout much of High River. Police explained that they did not want weapons to be stolen. They pledged to store them safely and give them back when residents could put them away at home again.

However, owners complained that their property was being confiscated while they were barred from returning to the badly damaged town.

"Mine were unsecured, but they were hidden. I certainly thought it was an intrusion on my privacy and kind of a violation," said High River realtor Greg Kvisle, whose firearms have been returned. "I'm not a charter lawyer, so I don't know what the laws reads, but from what I understand, it wasn't really warranted."

That only added to the frustration of being kept away from his house for more than a week, even though it is in the least affected part of town, not knowing the extent of damage, Mr. Kvisle said. The house did not take on flood water.

Last week, the PMO rebuked the RCMP for its decision to seize the guns, which in itself raised concerns that Ottawa is interfering with the operations of the national police force during the crisis. "We believe the RCMP should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property," PMO spokesman Carl Vallée said.

On Wednesday, the Mounties said many residents expressed appreciation that their weapons were protected, and others opted to leave them at the High River detachment while they get their homes cleaned up and rebuilt.

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